Brief Training to Modify the Breadth of Attention Influences the Generalisation of Fear

Mohith M. Varma, Riddhi J. Pitliya, Tomislav D. Zbozinek, Tomer Shechner, Tom J. Barry

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Background: Generalisation of fear from dangerous to safe stimuli is an important process associated with anxiety disorders. However, factors that contribute towards fear (over)-generalisation remain poorly understood. The present investigation explored how attentional breadth (global/holistic and local/analytic) influences fear generalisation and, whether people trained to attend in a global vs. local manner show more or less generalisation. Methods: Participants (N = 39) were shown stimuli which comprised of large ‘global’ letters and smaller ‘local’ letters (e.g. an F comprised of As) and they either had to identify the global or local letter. Participants were then conditioned to fear a face by pairing it with an aversive scream (75% reinforcement schedule). Perceptually similar, but safe, faces, were then shown. Self-reported fear levels and skin conductance responses were measured. Results: Compared to participants in Global group, participants in Local group demonstrated greater fear for dangerous stimulus (CS +) as well as perceptually similar safe stimuli. Conclusions: Participants trained to attend to stimuli in a local/analytical manner showed higher magnitude of fear acquisition and generalisation than participants trained to attend in a global/holistic way. Breadth of attentional focus can influence overall fear levels and fear generalisation and this can be manipulated via attentional training.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)99-110
Number of pages12
JournalCognitive Therapy and Research
Issue number1
Early online date1 Oct 2020
Publication statusPublished - 28 Feb 2021

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2020, The Author(s).

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Clinical Psychology


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